Chinese skills that develop so quickly it’s like they’re on steroids. Reading essays that provide a glimpse into this strange country. Blossoming friendships with students named Gorge, Pudding, and Glenn Chestnut.

Oh, the glamorous life I led in my head before I actually started teaching.

If you’re like me or several of my friends, and your newfound teaching gig in China is the first time you’ve stepped in front of the classroom, you’ve probably gotten your hands on a copy of Peter Hessler’s Rivertown. While I would suggest this beautifully written book as good background reading, it only does a somewhat decent job preparing you for what lays ahead.

Here are a couple of heads-up pointers to prepare all those newbie teachers out there, especially those who have found themselves teaching at a university.

  • You speak too fast. Nope. Still too fast. No, still didn’t catch that.

As I walked into my classroom on the first day of school, I was jazzed. I was ready, I was armed with the world’s best lesson plan and I was practicing speaking slowly. The excitement was palpable in the air as my students greeted me with smiles and gasps of surprise over their new foreign teacher.

But as soon as I started talking, those smiles quickly faded into blank stares, overwhelmed mouth gapes, and my personal favorite – the “I am going to vomit any second from terror” look. I quickly realized that my slow speech wasn’t slow enough.

Be prepared to feel like a monotone robot those first couple of weeks. Eventually, your students’ ears will catch up to your non-VOA accent and you’ll be able to add more of your personal inflection into your speech. A good gauge of your speaking speed is by looking at that “vomit face” student. The more normal they look, the easier you are to understand.

  • Welcome to China! Now meet 400 of your new friends.

If you teach at a university, your classes are going to be huge. If you snagged yourself a cushy private school gig, then you’ll have smaller classes, but an entirely different set of problems.

China’s university system feels the effects of the country’s hefty population, and nobody feels it more acutely than the students. Resources are stretched thin as university enrollment skyrockets, class sizes push beyond the 50 person mark, and the pressure for students to stand out increases as they near graduation. China’s dog-eat-dog capitalism makes finding a job desperately competitive. As a way to form an edge, your students will want to buddy up to you quickly. All 400 of them.

Your classrooms will be crammed with students obsessed with English. As the native-English speaker, you will be pressed against the wall with questions. Literally. (I can’t even count how many times my students have flooded around me after class asking questions on topics we didn’t cover that day.)

It will be overwhelming at first, but soon you’ll be deftly maneuvering among the pulsating throb of students as you realize that you’re an English rock star. You’ll also come to realize that as you start to burn out from the administration’s demands, it’s this enthusiasm from your students that keeps you going.

  • You’re magic. Or at least that’s what the people in charge of your school will think.

Has a single country ever been so obsessed with learning another specific language? I’m not sure. But China is crazy about English. It’s seen as a way to secure a better future, to move around in the international world, and better yet, to be able to watch and understand “Prison Break.”

So what does this have to do with the people running your school? They will think that because this pesky language comes to you naturally you are magic. You, my friend, are an English-speaking god among men.

Be prepared to be asked to teach extra classes. Most administrators won’t really care that you have large classes already or that you’re still trying to understand how to teach properly in China. They really think that teaching English for you is a breeze. I literally have been told that “I don’t really need to teach, just play with my students.” My students are 20 years old.

If this happens, you have two choices. You can accept the additional workload if you don’t have a problem with the request. Depending on your schedule, how much you love to teach, your pay, etc, you may want the extra class. Plus, now you have mad guanxi with the administration.

If you don’t want an additional class, you can protest the extra demand – especially if you never signed a contract. Generally, the school needs you more than you need them and if you cannot do it, tell them so. There are hundreds of teaching jobs out there, and if you feel like your current situation is dumping on you – don’t do it. The most important thing is to be in a teaching job that is both beneficial and respectful for the school and for your sanity.

Teaching extra classes isn’t the only thing you need to watch out for though. Based on my experiences and the experiences of my friends, you will be asked to attend certain banquets, certain performances or any other type of event where you “may” be asked to say something. Code – you’re giving a speech, singing a song, or maybe even performing a Russian dance on the fly.

My advice is to just go with it because most of the time the events are ridiculous good fun and it gives you a good story afterwards. But most importantly, make sure you eat a big meal beforehand because nine times out of ten, you’ll be escorted to a baijiu drinking banquet afterwards.




As with any job, teaching English in China has its ups and downs. Sure, every job has its fair share of bureaucratic nonsense that needs to be dealt with, but sometimes it’s that nonsense in China that seems overwhelming. You can thank cultural confusion and language barriers for that. But as long as you can be flexible, most teaching problems will work out (and in general, the key to surviving in China is flexibility).

If teaching and its problems ever start to really get to you, just remember – that even though your Chinese skills might not be growing like this year’s MLB steroid case, you will always have dinner with Gorge, Pudding and Glenn Chestnut to look forward to. And that’s the best part.


  1. My God yes, to all of this….takes me back to my first teaching gig 3 years back… Enjoy!! Now I’m the one doing the “vomit face” to my PhD-in-ancient-Chinese teacher who talks in idioms the whole time. Aaaargggrghhhh!

  2. Fantastic. I have plenty of perplexed faces in my classes now–I’m told I don’t have to worry much about them. But I have gotten used to saying, “OK? Understand?” thirty times a class. And for some reason, I rarely get asked any questions… about anything. I think all my sarcastic answers scared them away. I still love hearing, “Do you like Chinese food?” twenty times a year (my answer, “Sure, there’s nothing else to eat around here.”)

  3. I tend to think that Hessler’s book is more about armchair teaching rather than the reality of teaching in China.

    I would never recommend it to someone. If read before arriving I think one would be setting themselves up for a series of disappointments.

  4. You have to be really flexible to teach in China! Classes are canceled (or added!) at the last minute regularly, and last minute events pop up all the time. I could only laugh about the Russian dance. The other foreign teacher and I suddenly found ourselves required to dance the Hokey Pokey while running an English game day at another school, trying to recruit students.

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